Interview With Alice Shi Kembel
2017 Writing Contest Winner
Family Narrative Project
January 4, 2018
How would you describe your writing style? Who are your influences?
I would describe my writing style as honest, vulnerable, relatable, reflective, and occasionally irreverent. While this particular piece doesn’t demonstrate this, I enjoy incorporating humor into my writing. For example, one of my recent blog posts is titled, “The Middle-Aged, Overweight Woman’s Guide to Climbing 14ers (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet).” There are 52 such peaks in Colorado, where I live, and I am attempting to summit as many of them as possible as a middle-aged, overweight woman. So I decided to write a self-effacing survival guide about it.
One of my influences is Anne LaMott, who I appreciate for her candor, occasional self-flagellation, spiritual perspective, and subtle humor. I’ve also been influenced by David Sedaris. I love how he tells stories in a humorous, satirical manner but still addresses painful topics in an honest way. When I write humorous pieces, I sometimes like to think of myself as the female, straight, Protestant, Asian version of David Sedaris - but without his fame and prestige!
What is your writing process? How often do you write? How do you prepare yourself emotionally for writing?
I don’t have a structured writing process. I wish I did so that I would have more discipline around it! I write when there is a story inside of me, usually autobiographical, that needs to come out. Usually I am constructing the words, the sentences, the flow of a piece in my head before I even sit down to type anything. By the time I am in front of my computer, I am already emotionally ready to write.
What are some of your struggles as a writer?
This may sound cliche, but being intentional about making time to write is probably the hardest struggle I face. I have three children and am very involved in their school and activities, by trade I am a Speech-Language Pathologist, I love building community and spending time with my tribe, I am a quilter, swimmer, and hiker, plus I face the usual logistics of running everyday life – so there are a lot of ways I spend my time and energy. I’ve discovered I’m a “multipotentialite ” – someone with many interests and creative pursuits– so carving out time to write is one of many fantastic options and sometimes it is overlooked in favor of other pursuits or simply because being a mom of three boys has taken precedent.
One of my other struggles is the tension between wanting to write from my heart with authenticity and vulnerability while still honoring myself and the people in my life. One of the reasons I started writing was because I felt so alone as a struggling new mother and I didn’t want other moms to feel the same way. But to write in an honest and vulnerable way is exposing and scary, and it’s not always appropriate for a public forum. I also strive to create a balance between speaking the truth of my experience while respecting the integrity of my loved ones. The people in my life provide great fodder for my writing (https://aliceshikembel.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/dancing-queens-of-the-pta/), but I value the important relationships in my life far more than publishing anything I write.
Was there someone in your life who supported your writing in important ways? Specifically, what did that support look like?
The one person who comes to mind is my 9th grade English teacher, Blaze Newman (I just googled her and she just retired a year and a half ago). She was the first person who saw and spoke into my potential as a writer. I remember an assignment where we had to write an extra chapter for a book, emulating the voice of the author. Blaze gave me an A+ on my paper and shared very positive feedback about my piece and how I was able to tune in and imitate the writing style of the author. I had always loved to write, but that was the first time I realized I might actually be good at it.
What influence has your family had in your writing? In what ways did your childhood form you as a writer?
I loved writing as a child. My sister and I were both avid readers, and writing stories seemed to evolve naturally from that for both of us. I remember writing a very long (100+ pages) story about four girls in an orphanage, their different personalities, and the trials and tribulations they faced. The whole story was written on loose-leaf, lined paper and I kept the pages in binder with a fuzzy orange velour cover. It was all very dramatic - the story AND the binder.
When I entered high school, my parents strongly encouraged my sister and me to pursue becoming either a doctor or a lawyer. I think this was a common stance among immigrants like my parents who were hoping for a better life for their children. While they didn’t directly encourage my writing, my parents did provide lots of experiences that lay the groundwork for the stories I wrote as a child. We took a road trip every summer to a National Park, and our visit to Yellowstone left such an impression on me that I wrote about a girl whose father was a park ranger and mother was a postcard photographer. I actually still kind of wish I lived in Yellowstone!
Now that my parents have (hopefully by now) given up hope that I will ever become a doctor or a lawyer, they are supportive of my writing.
What was your favorite book as a child? Do you think that book has influenced you as a writer?
My favorite book as a child (high school age) was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Since it is a different genre than what I write and because I didn’t really begin pursuing writing until my early 30’s, I wouldn’t say it has influenced me as a writer, but it remains one of my favorite books to this day.
What do you believe it means to be a writer in the year 2018? How have you been shaped by your time and by the culture you live in? What themes reappear in your writing?
One reality I think writers are facing in 2018 and in our culture is the unbounded nature of media and how that affects what we write, who we write for, where we get our information, and how we share our writing. It’s both a blessing and a curse - the limitlessness is both freeing and paralyzing. For example, I have a manuscript I want to publish. Compared to a few decades ago, there are now a myriad of ways I could publish my book. It’s great to have so many options, but it’s also bewildering. What path should I pursue? What does that mean for me in the immediate future, and what does it mean long term? Sometimes having too much choice can be challenging.
Themes that re-appear in my writing are identity, motherhood, community, risk-taking, and boy humor (https://aliceshikembel.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/fall-2015winter-2016-donts/).
What are your goals as a writer? Or, let’s take it as step further—what is at the root of your passion for writing? Writing can be a lonely and demanding pursuit and often with few tangible rewards. Why do you write?
As I just mentioned, I have a manuscript (a parenting memoir) that I am hoping to publish. As that particular genre is difficult to break into, I’m working to build my platform as a writer in order to establish a larger readership and to get my name out into the world. My hope is that the more my writing is shared through organizations like FNP and other publications, the higher the likelihood that my book will be published.
I write in order to process my experiences. Sometimes I write to entertain. Mostly I write to express something that I feel needs to be shared with others. One of my readers sent me this note about a piece that I wrote for my mom’s column: “Your gift is empathy and shared experience so clearly expressed that anyone can identify and know that her pain is shared and real, and be somehow comforted…” I have saved that quote for many years because it encapsulates what I feel my primary calling is as a writer.
In your essay “Distilled,” you write about both family and death, but you approach these topics without resorting to sentimentality. At the Family Narrative Project, we are always thinking about definitions of family. What is your definition of family?
My definition of family is two-pronged. Most of us have families of circumstance – the people that we are connected to through genetics or marriage. But I think many of us also have families of choice – the relationships we choose to foster and invest in, our people, our tribe. I’ve seen the saying on a cheesy plaque, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” I’m not necessarily going to hang that plaque on my wall, but I resonate with that as a definition of family of choice. I feel lucky to have relationships in both categories that are supportive and loving.